Book Abstract

Abstract: Ethical Hermeneutics as a Response to the Modern Ego

In a modern Western moral order where approaches to interpretation and ethics are dominated by ego-based instrumental rationality, an ethically-informed hermeneutics can counter the negative and violent tendencies of that moral order, while providing an alternative based on dialogue, a hermeneutic approach to history, and a recognition of the often-unacknowledged backgrounds that frame thought. This book will develop both a theoretical model of ethical hermeneutics and practical applications.

This will be my third book to draw on philosophical hermeneutics. (My doctorate is in English from a very interdisciplinary program, and my work has incorporated philosophy since graduate school.) In William Wordsworth and the Hermeneutics of Incarnation, I relied heavily on Hans-Georg Gadamer to argue, against new historicist and deconstructive readings of Wordsworth, that his interpretation of the Christian concept of incarnation engages historical contingency and mortality as an alternative to the Enlightenment promotion of instrumental reason. In The Challenge of Coleridge, I placed Coleridge into a hermeneutic conversation with Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor and others to explore the relation between interpretation and ethics in Coleridge and modern philosophers. In his review of the latter, Nicholas Reid asks for a different book, “something more foundational” that will “explain . . . why a hermeneutic approach is rewarding. . . . Perhaps that will be Haney’s next book.”  The current project is that book, confronting directly the relationship between interpretation and ethics. Since writing those two literary studies, I have taught in interdisciplinary programs and worked primarily as an administrator, from English department chair to college president. This experience has shifted my focus from the intersection of literature and philosophy (both previous books are in Penn State Press’s Literature and Philosophy series) to the more general topic of how the intersection of hermeneutics and ethics can provide an alternative to modernity’s exaltation of the individual as an agent of instrumental rationality, as well as provide practical resources for a deeper alternative to “critical thinking” and philosophical support for effective organizational management (I have presented on topics such as “Leadership as Applied Hermeneutics”). My larger purpose is to demonstrate how the humanities can contribute to the solution of practical human problems: social scientists are good at observing and analyzing how humans act, but the humanities—in this case the history and theory of interpretation—can provide important questions and answers regarding the interaction of interpretation and ethics. Individual scholars have touched on the ethical-hermeneutic relationship (e.g., Warren), but it has not yet received this kind of comprehensive and applied treatment.

I use “interpretation,” “understanding,” and “hermeneutics” interchangeably, reflecting the hermeneutic philosophies developed by Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer, both influenced by the fundamentality of understanding in Heidegger: “understanding is not just one of the various possible behaviors of the subject but the mode of being of Dasein itself” (TM xxx). Understanding is not a separate state following interpretation, because, as Gadamer puts it, “Understanding occurs in interpreting” (TM 389).  I include Taylor and Emmanuel Levinas, because they share with hermeneutic thinkers the premise that ethical actions reflect fundamental human states of being and are not simply actions controlled by rational egos. What is prior to and what conditions the ego is different for each, from Gadamer’s “world already interpreted” into which we step (Philosophical Hermeneutics 15), to Ricoeur’s “histories of others” (Oneself 161) in which one’s own history is engaged, to Taylor’s “inescapable moral frameworks” that ground the self, all the way to Levinas’s radical grounding of the self in responsibility for the Other. I use “ethics” somewhat as it operates in “virtue ethics,” not restricted to virtues per se, but broadly defined as a disposition at a deep level of character, or even (for Levinas) that which is the foundation of the conscious self, as opposed to ethics that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism or teleological ethics) or compliance with duties or rules (deontology). The philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer is rooted in Aristotelian phronesis, an important touchstone for virtue ethics, and neither deontology nor consequentialism present the same kind of problems as does a hermeneutically informed ethics, which eschews simply determining rules or calculating consequences.

As I note in The Challenge of Coleridge, “The fact that ethics and hermeneutics are so clearly interconnected while at the same time so clearly incommensurable is exactly what makes this topic important” (4-5). Interpretation is not necessarily ethical: as Gadamer points out, “Even immoral beings try to understand one another” (“Reply to Jacques Derrida” 55). And ethical action does not always proceed from an interpretive process, as evidenced when one instinctively jumps into a river to save someone. At the same time, as Charles Taylor states, even such instinctive actions imply an interpretive stance conditioned by an inescapable background: “a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of, a given ontology of the human” (Sources of the Self 5).

The first part of the book will be theoretical, demonstrating how an ethically-infused hermeneutics can counter an emphasis on the individual as the locus of instrumental reason. Touchstones here are Levinas’s pre-reflective responsibility for the other as an antidote to the violence of egoistic rationality, Gadamer’s resituating of the individual in historically conditioned dialogue, Ricoeur’s analysis of “oneself as another,” and Taylor’s inescapable moral frameworks. Each of these post-Heideggerian critiques of egoistic instrumental rationality is well-known; my contribution will be (1) to combine them (acknowledging their differences) in a dialogue akin to what Walter Davis calls a “hermeneutics of engagement” in order to model an ethically hermeneutic alternative, and (2) to challenge the accusation of “conservatism” leveled against hermeneutics by commentators from Habermas to Caputo for its dependence on “tradition,” by showing how it can effectively counter the more dangerous conservatism that ego-based instrumental rationality can lead to.  

Here is an example of how my argument will proceed: Ethical discussions (especially in the American analytic tradition, which is heavily dependent on instrumental reason as a tool of analysis) are often based on the analysis of statements, as if a statement such as “It is always ethical to stand up against racism” exists in isolation from racists, different perspectives on what racism is, and the actual human interactions involved. The hermeneutical-ethical approach does not reject the importance of statements, but it can show where the statement fits in understanding without giving it more privilege than it deserves, by viewing the statement as an intermediary stage in the process of understanding—Ricœur discusses this intermediary stage as a distancing on the way to meaning, and Gadamer discusses the text (in this context, a written statement) as that to which we turn when understanding is disrupted, not as the primary vehicle of understanding (“Text and Interpretation” 34). If a text or utterance always occurs against an ethical background (as proposed by Taylor), then we must examine the unarticulated moral framework that lies behind the statement. This statement about racism should not be analyzed independently; it exists within a historically specific moral framework that values individual action (e.g., “stand up”) and implies a view of rational human equality that is opposed to a rationally defined concept of “racism.” That framework of modernity’s ego-based instrumental rationality limits our ability to combat racism, because a rational analysis of racism rarely convinces racists, and the oppositional agency of the ego implied by “stand up” casts racists and antiracists in the unproductive roles of what Levinas calls “egoisms struggling with one another” (Otherwise then Being 4) with “non-overlapping conceptual frameworks” (Anderson 7). Viewing racist behavior within the hermeneutic-ethical framework may give us better tools to combat it: see my discussion of Ibram X. Kendi’s argument in the writing sample.

The second, “application” part of the book will develop an ethical hermeneutics in two practical ways. First is a model for what I call “interpretive competence” as a better alternative to “critical thinking.” Michael Roth points out that critical thinking as currently promoted may produce “a class of self-satisfied debunkers” (235). “Critical thinking” is a useful but limited concept that arises from an individually-based instrumental rationality: individuals use the critical instrument of analysis in order to arrive at valid conclusions that often take the form of dismembering an argument. “Interpretive competence” uses a hermeneutic-ethical lens to view critical thinking as a subset of a larger interpretive process characterized by human dialogue occurring within a historical context and an ethical orientation. Where critical thinking is often presented in educational circles as a tool for self-actualization and the control of one’s environment, an “interpretively competent” person sees the individual as constituted in a process of dialogue and changing historical horizons, which requires a more complex set of skills, attributes, and knowledge than does critical thinking. Questions are prioritized over analytical statements, reasoning is aware of its historical and ethical context, and interpretation is seen as a fundamental human activity rather than a skill to be applied by individual egos.

The second chapter in this section will pursue the notion of “applied hermeneutics,” a term I have often used in my work as an administrator in higher education. Other fields have applied hermeneutics to professional situations, including bioethics (Widdershoven), health care (Carnevale), education (Fairfield), and even social media (Craig). My contribution, based on both my academic research and 20 years of experience in higher education administration, will be to develop specific ethical-hermeneutic concepts that can inform effective administrative practices. For example, Levinas’s notion that defining the Other according to a limited concept is an act of violence can help us understand one of the greatest impediments to administrative teamwork: when one team member or the leader fails to understand that the other always comes from a place beyond one’s own comprehension. Once you think you have figured someone out, you have impoverished the relationship and have started down the road toward violence. The practical advice found in the literature of organizational health, such as Lencione’s The Advantage, urges leaders in this direction, but stays within modernity’s grounding in the individual ego by advising us to consider “where the other person is coming from.” Levinas can help us deepen this advice into an acknowledgement that the Other is not just another ego coming from a different place, but rather the fundamental example of what is beyond and prior to our comprehension (this can provide new depth to the popular term “servant leader”). Similarly, Gadamer’s notion of the hermeneutic conversation as open-ended play (Spiel) guided not by individual subject positions, but “by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented” (TM 367) constitutes useful advice for the leader of any meeting who attempts to overcome the egos in the room and produce positive results that rise above individual egos. My analysis will also show how difficult such practices are to implement, precisely because they go against the grain of the dominant culture of ego-based instrumental rationality.

Works Cited

Anderson, Luvell.  “Hermeneutical Impasses.” Philosophical Topics 45:2 (Fall 2017). 1-20.

Caputo, John D. “Gadamer’s Closet Essentialism: A Derridean Critique.” Michelfeler, Diane P. and Richard E. Palmer, eds, Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter. Albany, NY: SUNY P, 1989. 258-64.

Carnevale, Franco A. “Framework for Ethics Research. “Nursing Philosophy 14 (2013): 86-95.

Craig, Robert. “Dilthey, Gadamer, and Facebook: Towards a New Hermeneutics of the Social Network.” The Modern Language Review 110: 1 (January 2015). 184-203.

Davis, Walter A. Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989.

Fairfield, Paul. Education, Dialogue, and Hermeneutics. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg.  Hermeneutics, Religion and Ethics. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer. Nwe Haven: Yale UP, 1999.

_____. “Text and Interpretation.” In The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings.  Ed. Richard E. Palmer.  Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1997: 156-91.

_____. Truth and Method. 2d ed. Trans. rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshal. New York: Crossroad, 1990. Cited as TM.

Habermas, Jurgen. “Der üniversalitatansprüch der Hermeneutik” In Karl Otto Apel, et al., Hermeneutik und Ideologiekritik. Frankfurt: Surkamp Verlag, 1977. 120-59.

Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books: 2016.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

______. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.  Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus  Nijhoff, 1981.

Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian UP, 1976.

_____. Oneself as Another. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Roth, Michael S. “Beyond Critical Thinking. In Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays in Living with the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) 234-38.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

_____. “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, ed. Robert J. Dostal.  (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002): 126-142

_____. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003.

_____. Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Warren, Jeff. “Towards an Ethical-Hermeneutics.” European Journal of Psychotherapy Counselling, and Health 7:1-2 (2005). 17-28.

Widdershoven, Guy, et al. “Empirical Ethics as Dialogical Practice.” Bioethics 23 (2009): 236-48.